NFL DRAFT DIAMONDS

What is a scout? Neil Stratton of Inside the League answers

WHAT IS A SCOUT?

NFL scouts have a job with intrigue and cache; almost every person who’s ever won a fantasy football league has entertained dreams of evaluating talent for a living. Let’s discuss these men of mystery.

What do scouts do?: First off, there are two kinds of scouts, pro and college. College scouts are what most people think of when they think ‘scout;’ they evaluate college players for the coming draft. ‘Pro’ scouts evaluate NFL players on the 32 teams and ‘street’ (post-college) free agents seeking tryouts. Most teams have twice as many college scouts as they have pro scouts.

What do college scouts do?: College scouts are assigned regions – usually West Coast, Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and Southwest, though different team split the country up their own ways – and travel 10-11 months of the year. They tend to live not where their team is based (necessarily), but usually in the middle of their region. In other words, the Seahawks’ southeast scout might live in Biloxi, Atlanta, or Pensacola. Some perceive that scouts spend all their time watching college games, but that’s not so. Many go home on weekends but spend Sunday night through Friday night on the road, visiting as many schools as possible. A typical day might involve showing up at a school and watching film all morning, spending the afternoon talking to coaches and team personnel about the team’s best prospects, watching practice, then returning to their hotel to write up reports on the players he evaluated that day. Then it’s on to the next school.

Evaluation: Sometimes a coach will recommend a player, but usually a scout arrives at a school knowing who the top players are. Once a seasoned scout gets a good handle on the team’s personnel (which may take more than one day), he decides which ones to write a report on, and which ones don’t deserve a report. If a scout doesn’t ‘write’ a player, he’s essentially declared him not a prospect even to be signed after the draft. The players he does ‘write’ wind up getting cross-checked by the team’s National Scout, usually a veteran with over a decade in the business. Most players that get ratings in the top rounds get evaluated 5-6 times by different members of the scouting department. The bigger, more talented schools usually even draw a handful of teams’ general managers.

National and BLESTO: Most NFL teams subscribe to one of two ‘combines:’ National Football Scouting and BLESTO. These two services employ scouts (usually young and/or inexperienced in the business) to watch juniors, grade them, and compile them in lists that can be presented to subscribing teams each May so teams can compose their scouting schedules. They also time and measure players the spring before their senior seasons. This is how teams have a preliminary idea of which seniors to evaluate.

Let’s spend a little more time decreasing the mystery surrounding NFL scouts. I think humanizing the business makes it a little easier to understand.

Where do scouts come from?: Scouts come from a lot of places. Some (not as many as you’d think) are ex-NFL players. Most played at least some college ball, though this is less common than it used to be. Many are ex-college coaches that knew someone and got their break that way. Many are family members of someone in team ownership. But the thing to understand is that scouts are getting younger and younger, and making less and less money, and that’s because teams see scouts as replaceable. The trend now is centralized decision-making, and teams are asking their low-level scouts to go out and gather information like 40 times, stats and criminal histories, then let the GM and his inner circle form opinions and make evaluations. They don’t want opinions from their area scouts as much as they want cold, hard facts. That’s made scouting, which has always been subjective, an even more inexact science despite the fact that everyone on the Internet, it seems, is evaluating players today. But this trend also has a big impact on scouts’ job security.

Job security: As we mentioned, a lot of teams see scouts as almost dispensable, and that’s why a team usually brings in a new scout on a sort of three-year probationary period. If he doesn’t seem to ‘get it,’ or maybe isn’t thorough enough, or doesn’t click with his boss, he may be tossed aside. There are also ‘regime changes’ that cost scouts their jobs. The last few years, there has been almost as much turnover among general managers as there has been among head coaches. To a GM, the scouting staff is akin to a head coach’s coaching staff. In other words, there are people he’s comfortable working with and he wants to surround himself with them. That’s why every May, right after the draft, there are hundreds of changes to team’s scouting staffs. Here are the 142 changes that took place in the NFL between the start of May and the end of July. Here are changes from 2012. The point is that there’s lots of turnover.

No right or wrong answers: There’s a perception that there’s a ‘black-and-white’ nature to scouting, and that a good scout, if given the chance, can see obvious flaws that diminish a player, or big pluses that show that a player has talent and potential. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evaluation is a function of a player’s talent, of course, and his pure physical ability, but also the skills and experience level of the scout evaluating him; how his school used him; how his head coach or position coach felt about him; NFL team needs; local affiliation; and at times even the personal histories of the scouts themselves. There’s also a lot of luck involved. This is why you have to understand that if one team rates a player as marginal, that’s just one of 32 opinions that count. There are a lot of reasons a team might not like a player, but just as many that a separate team may differ in its assessment. That’s one reason selecting an agent that works hard for you is so important, but we’ll address that later.

Inside The League (www.insidetheleague.com) is the consulting service for the football industry. We work with the contract advisors for about two-thirds of active NFL players as well as the combine trainers, financial planners, scouts, coaches and other pro league organizers that make up the game. Cost is $25/month, and you can cancel at any time.

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